What does your heart most desire when you’re a parent of young twins or triplets? Maybe you want your tiny terrors to sleep through the night, to eat their pureed veg instead of wearing it, or just to stop crying before you lose your mind.
Baby care is all-consuming when you have more than one at a time so it’s tough to think ahead. But most mums and dads, when they have a chance to reflect, want their children to turn into happy healthy adults.
Inevitably, you’ll end up saying things like ‘Look, a tree’ more often than the average parent. Just remember: you’re not the average parent.
So spare a thought for the future now, because the sooner you start helping them become individuals in their own right, the better for their long term emotional health.
Of course twins, triplets or more are individuals from the word go. Even identical twins aren’t 100% identical, because, for one thing, the environment in the womb is subtly different for each baby. But they face a struggle to be seen and treated as separate little people.
If you nurture each child’s individuality, there are benefits for you too. You’ll find it rewarding relating to each baby separately. And, because children learn language and speech by example, this will help their communication skills.
Their social skills should improve too. With a strong sense of self, they’re likely to be more confident and less competitive (yes, that means less likely to fight). And once they start playgroup, nursery or school, they will manage better and make friends more easily than if they cling to each other.
Three easy things to do
Names are important. If you have yet to name your babes, you might want to avoid monikers that sound similar (Tim and Jim), begin with the same letter, or are very matchy-matchy (Lily and Rose).
Clothing is another place to start. Sure, clothes are superficial, but we can’t help judging others by appearance. You need to tell your offspring apart easily, and so does everyone else. There’s no doubt that having twins or triplets is special, and that they look adorable dressed the same. You want to show them off.
But the same outfits in different colours are equally cute. Another option is the same colours but different styles. Or you could forget all about matching outfits, which means you can put them in whatever comes to hand in the morning. And when one of them vomits impressively, you only have to change that one baby’s clothes (and yours).
When you take photos and videos, tag them so you can tell later which child is which. It’s sad to look at family snaps years later and find that neither you nor anyone else knows who’s in the picture. Take some photos of each twin or triplet on his own too.
Not quite so easy, but just as important
Giving individual attention takes time, and lack of this precious resource is your greatest challenge. It’s quicker and easier to lump twins or triplets together, to talk to them as one and to treat them as a unit. However if you look for chances, you’ll find plenty of moments during the day for one-to-one interaction. It might just be a feed or a nappy change, but it’s an opportunity to make eye-contact. Start early. Even newborn babies know when someone’s paying attention.
Whenever you can, talk to each child separately rather than addressing them collectively. Try to use individual names, even if it’s only to say, ‘Toby, it’s bedtime.’ If both your children are present, use that child’s name at the beginning of the sentence so he realises you’re talking to him.
Encourage absolutely everyone to use their names too. No calling them twins, twinnies, triplets, boys, gang, and so on. The older generation are more likely to be ‘lumpers’, so grandparents may need reminders.
As they grow up
As they grow up, it can be an effort to repeat yourself for each twin or triplet. Inevitably, you’ll end up saying things like ‘Look, a tree’ more often than the average parent. Just remember: you’re not the average parent.
If possible, each child will value his own territory. If they share a bedroom, arrange some private play-space or simply a shelf each. Each twin or triplet could have his own toy-box and toys, except for building blocks, perhaps, and really big shared items.
Going to parties is a major part of childhood. A discreet word with the birthday child’s parents should ensure that each gets his own invitation and party bag. It’s nice for each twin to reply separately to the invite, and to take separate presents to the party (they needn’t be more expensive than one gift).
Learning to be independent
Twins and other multiples don’t always get as many chances to explore and learn. There are practical limits because it’s harder to supervise two or more of the same age, whether it’s at home or in the park. If your twins race off in different directions, it’s a lot less trouble to keep them in the buggy. Messy play is also more difficult with multiples, as is learning to feed themselves.
By his second or third birthday, a child should be at least partly dressing himself. With multiples it’s easier for a parent to carry on dressing toddlers. Remember each one needs to learn to dress, and acquire skills like toileting and hand-washing.
Most of all, twins lack solitude. There’s rarely such a thing as completing a puzzle, because the other twin muscles in. Building a tower of bricks is fun, until your twin sabotages your architectural triumph. It’s hard for a twin to stay on track and finish things, and this could contribute to the higher incidence of attention deficit disorder among twins and more. Here’s where separate activities and outings can be a good idea, at least from time to time.
Separate outings needn’t be ambitious. Even going down to the post-box or the corner shop in a borrowed single buggy can be exciting. All you need is someone to look after the rest of your litter for half an hour. If you have never had the pleasure of a singleton’s company, it could be a welcome novelty for you too.
Dr Carol Cooper is a GP, mother of twins, Tamba’s honorary consultant in family medicine and author of Twins & Multiple Births; the essential parenting guide from pregnancy to adulthood.